Thursday, November 15, 2018

WISHBONES - A History of Lore and Luck

Posted by: Dani Harper, Author
Thanksgiving is coming up fast, and many families will choose a turkey as the center of their holiday feast. And after dinner comes the well-known tradition of breaking the wishbone.

But what IS a wishbone? And why on earth would we want to break one?

First of all, you won’t find one in humans. We have two separate collarbones. But a bird’s collarbones are fused into a single Y-shaped bone known as the furcula, or “little fork” in Latin. The collarbones of bipedal dinosaurs like the T-Rex and the Velociraptor were also fused into one. In fact, the presence of a furcula was one of the clues that helped us figure out that modern-day birds—especially chickens and turkeys—are the closest relatives to many dinosaurs.

Two hundred and fifteen million years ago, there weren’t any humans around to make wishes on giant dinosaur furculas. But fast forward to around 700 BC, when the ancient Etruscans lived in what is now Italy. They believed that in addition to tasting good, chickens had a mystical connection to the future that bordered on the sacred. After dinner, the furcula was carefully separated out and dried in the sun. After three days, it would be retired to a safer place in the home. Family and friends would run their fingers over the bone while asking it for favors.

You might have noticed that the Etruscans did not break the bone. That little flourish was added by the Romans when they conquered the Etruscans and adopted the furcula tradition. No more could a bone be wished upon by more than one person! Competitors would each crook a finger around a leg of the wishbone and pull. Then as now, whoever got the bigger piece was said to have their wish granted.

The practice of making wishes on a furcula found its way across Europe to Britain. Chickens seemed to decline in popularity for a time, and the bones of geese and partridge were substituted. The birds may have changed, but the ability to divine the future was still attributed to their bones. Writings from 1455 show that geese eaten on St. Martin’s Night (November 11th) were used to predict the severity of the winter. Their breastbones, with wishbones carefully left attached, were dried overnight and examined by the oldest and wisest person available. Armies actually planned their campaigns based solely on the thickness of a goose’s wishbone!

By the 1500s, the furcula custom acquired more rules. Each person would balance the wishbone on their nose like a pair of spectacles and make their wish beforehand. But the game wasn’t necessarily over after the traditional breaking. The winner would often secrete their portion of the bone in one of their outstretched fists, and ask the loser to choose. If the loser picked the hand that held the bone, they could also have their wish come true.

Written records from 1598 show that the wishbone was most often called a merrythought, and whoever won the break would be the first to marry. Among bachelors, the meaning was often a little more carnal – whoever won would be the first into the marriage bed. Small wonder that the breaking of the wishbone was frequently associated with the loss of virginity!

The tradition of the wishbone traveled to the American colonies from England. And America had an abundance of turkeys, which meant bigger wishbones. 

No matter which bird was used in the USA, its Y-shaped bone acquired more folklore. In 1890, it was recorded in Adams County, Illinois, that both the winner and the loser of a wishbone pull would hang their portion over their doorway like mistletoe. The first man or woman through the door was predicted to be the future husband or wife of the wishbone owner.

The 1910 Edition of the American Poultry Journal affirmed that using chicken wishbones to foretell a spouse was a widespread tradition. A variation on the custom was that the first single woman who walked under a wishbone after it was hung would marry soon. Women who were already married might hang a wishbone over the door in order to conceive a child, or in some cases carry a wishbone in their apron pocket.

Victorian jewelry was often designed around good luck charms, and wishbones were as popular as horseshoes and clovers on pendants, pins and brooches. It was about this time that the classic V-shaped wedding ring emerged. Its shape was a streamlined version of a wishbone, and was immediately popular because of the wishbone's association with true love.

By 1900, the wishbone was appearing regularly in postcards and greeting cards for every occasion.

Surprisingly, despite the lengthy history surrounding the humble furcula, the first known use of the word wishbone wasn't until 1847 in the USA. That's according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms included the word in its third edition in 1859.  It’s also thought that the term “lucky break” might have come from wishbone pulling.

But whatever the word, whatever the occasion, and whatever the bird, remember this:  The next time you pluck a wishbone, you’re holding nearly three thousand years of tradition in your hands!

Oh, and don't forget to impress your relatives with the word furcula...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

THE GRIM SERIES by Dani Harper

The fae are cunning, powerful and often cruel. The most beautiful among them are often the most deadly. Hidden far beneath the mortal world, the timeless faery realm plays by its own rules—and those rules can change on a whim. Now and again, the unpredictable residents of that mystical land cross the supernatural threshold…

In this enchanting romance series from Dani Harper, the ancient fae come face-to-face with modern-day humans and discover something far more potent than their strongest magic: love.

See ALL Dani's novels on her Amazon Author Page


  1. This is Awesome, Dani! Thanks for the trivia~

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Stephanie. I LOVE trivia so it's always fun for me to write about it.

  2. Brilliant, been pulling "furcula's" (loving the name) for years and never knowing why.
    Fabulous facts as always Dani x x

    1. Isn't that a cool name? It was a surprise to me to discover how far back this tradition went. Thanks for the comment!


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